Star rating: ***½
In a city of 80,000 litigators, it’s a brave man who stands on stage and declares, “A lawyer who is not a social engineer is a social parasite.” Particularly when three Supreme Court justices and a former White House counsel are among the audience.
But if you’re Laurence Fishburne, a Tony Award winner and Academy Award nominee, and you’re playing Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice, presumably you get a few passes. In George Stevens Jr.’s one-man show, which sees Marshall address an imaginary auditorium at Howard University, more than a few zingers are thrown out to the audience (including one aimed at absentee justice Clarence Thomas). It’s Fishburne’s mesmerizing performance, however, that has the most impact. The Matrix and CSI star first played Marshall on Broadway in 2008 and was nominated for a Tony. Transplanted to Washington, in a theater named after two of Marshall’s contemporaries—John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower—his performance seems to have an extra resonance.
Fishburne has an uncanny ability to portray Marshall at different times in his life. Shuffling onto the stage, hunched over a walking stick, and sporting glasses and a navy blue suit, Fishburne transforms himself into the elderly judge, moving painfully and with a reedy tone to his voice. But as he recalls his childhood, his posture straightens, the stick is discarded, his voice gets deeper, and he regains freedom of movement. “I was named Throughgood,” he says, “but by second grade I got tired of spelling all those letters.” This is no somber, dull jurist. Fishburne’s Marshall regales the audience with tales of girls and booze, from his first wife—“She was named Buster,” says Marshall, making inappropriate gestures with his hands—to his taste for Wild Turkey.
Despite relishing moments of bawdiness, Fishburne has no problem communicating what a phenomenal activist Marshall was. Moving around Allen Moyer’s set, which features a vast, Jasper Johns-esque all-white American flag, Fishburne stands in front of projections that jump from portraying 1920s Baltimore to the Supreme Court. As Marshall describes his greatest triumphs—including making history in Brown vs. Board of Education—he communicates a lack of arrogance that demands empathy. And in impersonating everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Lyndon B. Johnson, his accents are flawless. Moments of pathos could be drawn out, but the show doesn’t lapse into sentimentality. When Marshall notes after his first wife’s death, “I had never been alone before,” the moment is over almost before it’s begun. But as a performer, Fishburne uses every word to reel the audience in. Marshall’s final statement in Brown, referring to segregated Americans, has echoes of Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “Hunt them and they will die, shoot them and they will bleed . . . but encourage them, and they will flourish.”
At the Kennedy Center through June 20. For tickets ($25 to $90) click here.